How to Become an Agricultural or Food Scientist
Most animal scientists earn a Ph.D., whereas food scientists and technologists, as well as soil and plant scientists, typically earn a bachelor’s degree.
Agricultural and food scientists need at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited postsecondary institution, although many obtain more advanced degrees. Food scientists and technologists and soil and plant scientists typically earn bachelor’s degrees. Some scientists earn a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). Most animal scientists earn a doctoral or professional degree.
Every state has at least one land-grant college that offers agricultural science degrees. Many other colleges and universities also offer agricultural science degrees or agricultural science courses. Degrees in related sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or in a related engineering specialty also may qualify people for many agricultural science jobs.
Undergraduate coursework for food scientists and technologists and for soil and plant scientists typically includes biology, chemistry, botany, and plant conservation. Students preparing to be food scientists take courses such as food chemistry, food analysis, food microbiology, food engineering, and food processing operations. Students preparing to be soil and plant scientists take courses in plant pathology, soil chemistry, entomology (the study of insects), plant physiology, and biochemistry.
Undergraduate students in the agricultural and food sciences typically gain a strong foundation in their specialty, with an emphasis on teamwork through internships and research opportunities. Students are also encouraged to take humanities courses, which can help them develop good communication skills, and computer courses so that they may become familiar with common programs and databases.
Many people with bachelor’s degrees in agricultural sciences find work in related jobs rather than becoming an agricultural or food scientist. For example, a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science is a useful background for farming, ranching, agricultural inspection, farm credit institutions, or companies that make or sell feed, fertilizer, seed, and farm equipment. Combined with coursework in business, agricultural and food science could be a good background for managerial jobs in farm-related or ranch-related businesses. For more information, see the profile on farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers.
Graduate level study further develops an animal scientist’s knowledge. Most students with bachelor’s degrees in application-focused food sciences or agricultural sciences typically earn advanced degrees in applied topics such as nutrition or dietetics. Students who major in a more basic field, such as biology or chemistry, may be better suited for getting their Ph.D. and doing research within the agricultural and food sciences. During graduate school, there is additional emphasis on lab work and original research, where prospective animal scientists have the opportunity to do experiments and sometimes supervise undergraduates.
Advanced research topics include genetics, animal reproduction, and biotechnology, among others. Advanced coursework also emphasizes statistical analysis and experiment design, which are important as Ph.D. candidates begin their research.
Some agricultural and food scientists receive a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine before they begin their animal science training. Similar to Ph.D. candidates in animal science, a prospective veterinarian must first have a bachelor’s degree before getting into veterinary school.
Communication skills. Communication skills are critical for agricultural and food scientists. They must be able to explain their studies: what they were trying to learn, the methods they used, what they found, and what they think the implications are of their findings. They must also be able to communicate well when working with others, including technicians and student assistants.
Critical-thinking skills. Agricultural and food scientists must use their expertise to determine the best way to answer a specific research question.
Data-analysis skills. Agricultural and food scientists, like other researchers, collect data using a variety of methods, including quantitative surveys. They must then apply standard data analysis techniques to understand the data and get the answers to the questions they are studying.
Decision-making skills. Agricultural and food scientists must use their expertise and experience to determine whether their findings will have an impact on the food supply, farms, and other agricultural products.
Math skills. Agricultural and food scientists, like many other scientists, must have a sound grasp of mathematical concepts.
Observation skills. Agricultural and food scientists conduct experiments that require precise observation of samples and other data. Any mistake could lead to inconclusive or inaccurate results.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Agricultural and food scientists can get certifications from organizations like the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS), Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), or the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). These certifications recognize expertise in agricultural and food science, and enhance the status of those who are certified.
According to the organizations, certification of professional expertise is broadly based on education, a comprehensive exam, and previous professional experience. Scientists may need to take continuing education courses every year to keep their certification, and they must follow the organization’s code of ethics. Certifications are generally not required, but the agricultural and food science community recognize their importance. Some states require soil scientists to be licensed to practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but generally include holding a bachelor’s degree with a certain number of credit hours in soil science, a certain number of years working under a licensed scientist, and passage of an examination.
Internships are highly recommended for prospective food scientists and technologists. Many entry-level jobs in this occupation are related to food manufacturing, and hands-on experience is very important in that environment.